The American right’s obsessive focus on abortion is many things: misleading—it’s not about protecting the lives of innocent potential humans but about denying the essential humanity of women—shameless, and cruel, for starters. One thing it is not is random. Conservatives get one thing right: Abortion rights are a fundamental, clash-of-civilization-level battle. What is at stake, in the overturning of Roe v. Wade, is a woman’s autonomy over her own body, yes, but with it the foundation of modern family life.
The Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 didn’t feel like an ephemeral political victory. It felt like society turning a corner. Like voting rights, abortion rights are a cornerstone on which the structure of modern democracy rests. And once implemented, they have thus far generally become permanent: This century, only Nicaragua, Poland, and the United States—all societies where anti-democratic regimes rule with minority support—have rolled back abortion rights. Roe v. Wade lasted 50 years, albeit in a progressively weakening state.
Abortion rights are foundational because control over the size and timing of family growth is a prerequisite of the modern condition. Demographers have documented what some call the “demographic transition,” which spread around the world with industrialization, bringing lower death rates, especially for children, which led to lower birth rates a generation or two later. Birth rates fell because people didn’t need or want as many children now that kids were more likely to survive. They fell because children were becoming more costly (and valuable) to educate. And they fell because people gained access to better means of contraception.
This demographic transition opened the door, in turn, to a whole suite of changes in family life in wealthy democracies: cohabitation and later (optional) marriage, legal divorce with less stigma, childbearing without marriage, and substantial movement toward gender equality in families. These changes followed, and also promoted, advances in women’s democratic rights and their educational and employment opportunities. (They also led to gay and trans rights, which are still emergent and now under more serious threat themselves.)
When the most sophisticated opponents of women’s rights attack abortion, they speak about it in terms of the rise of “individualism”—the idea that individuals should control their own destinies—which they see as a deepening crisis of modern decadence. The idea that the very structure of families should fall within the realm of individual choice (something that has long been a reality for privileged men), which implies that human relationships are subject to mutual negotiation and reciprocal consent, is an extension of modern progress that strikes at the core of both traditional patriarchy and contemporary authoritarianism.
Voting rights, abortion rights, marriage rights—these are affirmations of the personhood of those oppressed under the “traditional” view of democracy. The U.S. form of democracy from the Civil War until the 1960s favored the limited freedoms of capitalism—allowing Black people, workers, and women to enter into labor contracts, for example, and legally own property—without the protections of the modern state and polity, such as the legal defense against employment discrimination or exclusion from voting. Without those protections, the political power of these groups is always limited, and their security cannot be ensured.
Failing to see the anti-abortion movement’s success in clash-of-civilization terms would leave us unprepared for the wider legal assault that is already forming. The reasoning underpinning Justice Alito’s draft of the Dobbs opinion is broad enough to encompass other “unenumerated rights,” those rights not specifically listed in the Constitution. These include access to contraception and marriage equality, which are clearly in the GOP crosshairs. Without majority political support, the courts are the reactionary right’s main recourse.
Control over family size and timing is not sufficient for human freedom in our age, of course. Without the support of state policy and workplace practices, women’s independence becomes women’s hardship for those who lack the privileges of race and class. But reproductive rights are a prerequisite for the changes in family life that underlie all progress toward gender equality.
Roe was seen as a “super-precedent” by many, meaning it was supposed to be beyond reconsideration by the courts, something other cases could build on. To the list of norms recently kicked to the curb by the new American authoritarianism, we can now add the gentleperson’s agreement among the justices of the Supreme Court to treat such cases as “settled law.” And Roe lasted half a century, which helped create the impression of a historical ratchet of human and civil rights. It’s true that some victories are harder to reverse than others; the very experience of living under Roe made women stronger, making it more difficult to deny them their due. But however much we wish for a historical arc that bends toward justice, a predestined path toward equality, that image is aspirational rather than descriptive; it’s a challenge, not a promise.
There is no vice in seeing the attack on abortion as a fundamental assault on human progress, and no virtue in shrinking from the fight ahead that implies.